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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE SEC-PART II
The era of the SEC continued last season when the conference secured an unprecedented seventh straight national title as Alabama romped past Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS title game.

Which, fairly, brings up an interesting point: Is this truly the era of the SEC, or more accurately, the era of Alabama?

Good question, considering that it has been the Tide winning most of the national titles in recent seasons. Three of the last four, in fact, the string only broken by Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010.

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Moreover, the rest of the SEC didn't exactly overpower opposition in the most recent round of bowl games at the end of last season. Heavyweights Florida and LSU were dumped by Louisville and Clemson, respectively. Mississippi State became Northwestern's first postseason victim since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Steve Spurrier's South Carolina also needed a last-second escape before nipping Michigan.

Still, when the dust settled last January, three of the likely top four teams in the nation (Bama, Georgia, and Texas A&M) were from the SEC. That trio all ranked within the top five of the final polls, though we have some oceanfront property in Phoenix to sell anyone who believes Notre Dame would have beaten the Bulldogs or Aggies (and we know what happened to the Irish vs. the Crimson Tide). Add in South Carolina and Florida, and the SEC had five of the top ten ten in all of the final polls.

Well, we suppose, case closed. The SEC is still the top league by a good margin. It's just that Alabama has also been in a class above the rest. (Remember, too, that Nick Saban's last two national title winners have been unable to escape the SEC regular season unscathed; last year, it was Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M pulling the upset in Tuscaloosa, as Les Miles' LSU had done in 2011; a year ago, LSU and Georgia, the latter in the SEC title game, also were a whisker away from knocking off Bama.)

Speaking of Saban, it's worth noting that he is only one of four coaches in the league to have been on the job six seasons or more, along with Georgia's Mark Richt, Spurrier, and Miles. Moreover, since 2001, four coaches (Spurrier at Florida, Saban from days at LSU, Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, and Auburn's Gene Chizzik) have either left or been fired from jobs where each won national titles, an honor that would qualify a coach for sainthood in most other corners of the country.

Tennessee and Auburn also rate as good SEC case studies entering 2013, as examples of what can happen to coaches and programs when slipping, even briefly, from high perches. In the case of the Vols, they are now working on their fourth coach in six seasons, with Butch Jones arriving from Cincinnati for this fall. As for Auburn, it was done with Chiziik just two years after his national title, when the Tigers fell beneath .500 last fall. Former o.c. Gus Malzahn, off a successful one-year run as HC at Arkansas State, returns to the Plains to take Chizik's place.

Along with Jones and Malzhan, other new coaches in the league are at Arkansas (former Wisconsin HC Bret Bielema) and Kentucky (Mark Stoops, part of the famous coaching family of Stoops boys and most recently Florida State's d.c.).

Indeed, it has never been more treacherous for a coach in the SEC, especially with the likes of Vanderbilt (back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history after the hiring of HC James Franklin in 2011) and Ole Miss (resurgent under 2nd-year HC Hugh Freeze and off one of the nation's top recruiting hauls) also stirring. Texas A&M, energized under new HC Kevin Sumlin and surprise Heisman winner Manziel, has added even more depth and firepower to the mix.

Meanwhile, Missouri, which had plenty of success in the Big 12 under HC Gary Pinkel, endured a rough baptism to the SEC last season, which has put Pinkel squarely on the hot seat in Columbia.

So stay tuned for another wild SEC ride this fall. After an earlier look at the SEC East, our Chief Analyst, Gary Olshan, offers his take on the SEC West below. Straight-up and pointspread records from 2012 are included for each. --Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

SEC WEST PREVIEW


by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst


ALABAMA (2012 SUR: 13-1; PSR 7-7)...The Tide, which is trying to capture its fourth national title in the past five seasons, is the prohibitive preseason No. 1 pick in 2013. Though HC Nick Saban had nine players selected in the NFL draft (plus five undrafted free agents), the mastermind has simply reloaded with another highly-ranked recruiting class. Since the AP poll began in 1936, no program has won four national championships in five years. But history could be made in Tuscaloosa this campaign, with Bama fortuitously avoiding SEC East heavyweights Florida, Georgia and South Carolina on the schedule.

Five starters return to a combustible, well-balanced attack (38.7 ppg; 227.5 ypg rushing; 218 ypg passing), directed by prime Heisman Trophy candidate sr. QB A.J. McCarron (2,933 YP; 30 TDP, just 3 ints.), who led the nation in passing efficiency. And even with BCS title game MVP and leading rusher Eddie Lacy leaving early for the NFL, a plethora of playmakers still surround McCarron, including explosive soph RB T.J. Yeldon (1,108 YR, 12 TDs) & superb WR Amari Cooper (59 grabs, 11 TDs), who leads a deeepp group of pass catchers that didn’t lose any significant contributors from 2012. Five-star frosh RB Derrick Henry (broke fibula in spring, but expected to be healthy in fall) gets a chance to show his stuff early on. The biggest offensive concern is replacing three starters on the OL, with soph Ryan Kelly taking over for All-American Barrett Jones at C.

Seven starters are back on another stifling, opportunistic stop unit (10.9 ppg; +14 TO margin) that led the nation in scoring and total defense last year. That nasty unit is spearheaded by a ferocious, experienced LB corps, anchored by ubiquitous, all-SEC C.J. Mosley (107 tackles), who passed on the NFL, and sack-happy LB Adrian Hubbard (6 sacks). Savvy, sixth-year d..c. Kirby Smart will plug in some young, eager studs along the reloading DL and in the secondary (particularly at CB), which is an area of expertise for Saban. Returning jr. SS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (5 picks) provides needed vocal leadership on the last line of defense, while sr. DE Ed Stinson (8.5 TFL) is the battle-tested stalwart up front. With reliable Jeremy Shelly (perfect 11 of 11 FGs LY) gone, the kicking game is ? Sr. PK Cade Foster, who attempted long FGs last year, connected on only 4 of 9 3-pointers, including a scatter-shot 1 of 4 from 40-49 yds. HUGE revenge game comes early for the Tide, which visits Johnny Football and mates in College Station on Sept. 14. Note, the “Nicktator” has been a wise investment, going 41-24 vs. the spread last 65 on the board.


TEXAS A&M (SUR: 11-2; PSR 8-5)...A&M must be in the conversation for the BCS title, with the return of the wondrous Heisman Trophy Winner Johnny Manziel, who led his Aggies to an historic 11-win season in its SEC debut and the school’s first top-five finish since 1956! And remember, A&M wasn’t far from an undefeated campaign, with gut-wrenching narrow losses to Florida & LSU. Plus, the Aggies play 8 of their first 10 games at energizing Kyle Field (including epic showdown vs. payback-minded Bama), and enjoy a pair of bye weeks prior to tough battles at Ole Miss and LSU.

Houdini-like Johnny Football (3,707 YP, 1,410 YR, 47 TD) has reportedly improved his downfield accuracy and poise in the pocket under promoted first-year o.c. Clarence McKinney, who moved up from RB coach after former coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left to become the head coach at Texas Tech. Cool and confident Manziel directs a high-octane offense (44.5 ppg, 558.5 ypg) that could be even better than the 2012 unit that became the first in SEC history to surpass 7,000 yards in a season. After all, there is an embarrassment of riches in the backfield, with starting RB Ben Malena (808 YR, 8 TDs), soph speedster Trey Williams, along with highly-prized transfers Brandon Williams (Oklahoma transfer runs 40 in 4.47) & Tra Carson (Oregon). Even though record-breaking WR Ryan Swoope (school’s career leader in receptions & receiving yards) has hung up his cleats, rangy 6-5 soph Mike Evans (82 catches for 1,105 yds, 5 TDs). who is a matchup nightmare for opposing CBs, is ready to build on his sensational debut. The coaching staff is raving about 6-6, 270-pound juco transfer Cameron Clear, who can play in the slot or in a two-tight end set. The OL--which was considered one of the school’s all-time best in 2012--unlikely to suffer much drop-off despite jr. LT Luke Joeckel’s early departure to the NFL.

Only 4 starters are back on the defense (21. 8 ppg; 390.2 ypg, 3.7 ypc) that has some serious reloading on the front seven, especially afer losing impactful LBs Jonathan Stewart & Sean Porter. But fearless LB Donnie Braggs & quick-learning juco LB Tommy Sanders, who shined in the spring, appear ready to step up. And the DL could exceed expectations again, especially if NT Kirby Ennis (knee injury & suspended) & DE Julian Obiaha (back) can return to full health—as anticipated—in the fall. The Aggies finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense last term, but serious improvement is expected from the highly-seasoned secondary, featuring tight-covering CBs De’Vante Harris & Deshazor Everett. In the special teams department, a better year is needed from strong-legged soph PK Taylor Bertolet, who converted a mere 2 of 9 from 30-49 yards in 2012. Bertolet did produce 65 touchbacks out of 103 kickoffs. Following its two tough losses LY, Kevin Sumlin’s crew roared back in the following games with blowout wins over SMU and Auburn by a combined 111-24 margin.

LSU (SUR: 10-3; PSR 5-8)...LSU had 11 players declare early for the NFL draft, which is believed to be a record for any school in America. In addition, the Tigers also lost four senior starters. For most programs, such huge losses would make it easy for the head coach to make excuses for any mediocrity surfacing in the following season. Not at LSU. “I like the fact that we send guys to the NFL early and recruit guys with the potential to go to the NFL early.” HC Les Miles says. “I want every guy that I recruit to have the opportunity to playa long, extended career in the NFL. I’d like to develop them.” Ninth-year mentor Miles is getting the opportunity this campaign, but we doubt LSU will be cracking the top two in the loaded SEC West.

Seven starters return to an attack (29.5 ppg) executed by QB Zach Mettenberger (2609 YP, 12 TDs, 7 ints.), who must assimilate a new system under first-year o.c. Cam Cameron (fired by the Super Bowl champ Baltimore Ravens in midseason year ago), who is the Tigers’ third offensive coordinator in four years. Cameron promises a more uptempo and pass-oriented style, while adhering to Miles’ power running philosophy. Miles indefinitely suspended soph RB Jeremy Hill (755 YR, 12 TDs) after his arrest following an off-campus altercation, but proven runners Alfred Blue, who played just three games last year due to a knee injury, and bruising Kenny Hilliard are no slouches. The WR corps is virtually intact, with the top four receivers back, led by Jarvis Landry (56 catches, 5 TDs) and Odell Beckham Jr. (43). And while Landry & Beckham Jr. were special at times, they need to limit their drops and improve their route-running. Scouts report that juco WR Quantavius Leslie could give the Tigers a home run threat. Three starters are back on the OL, with arguably the top lineman La’el Collins shifting from LG back to his old prep position of LT. That unit needs to do a better job of pass protection after yielding 35 sacks year ago. And Mettenberger, who didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations, has a chance to make a big leap forward under Cameron, who has a reputation as a strong QB tutor.

Only three starters return to a defense (17.5 ppg; 307.6 ypg; 3.0 ypc) that must replace its entire DL. But it isn’t a start-from-scratch project, with experienced linemen Jermauria Rasco, Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson & Danielle Hunter supplying more athleticism and potentially more explosiveness in terms of generating a pass rush than the recently departed group. Replacing omnipresent LB Rick Minter (team-leading 130 tackles) is no easy task, but a talented six-man 2012 LB recruiting class (featuring top prospect LB Kendall Beckwith) will help fill the gaps, while LB Lamin Barrow (104 tackles) should be a strong anchor. The safety spots are in good hands with sr. SS Craig Loston (3 ints.) & jr. FS Ronald Martin. Crafty d.c. John Chavis hopes to have his revamped but talent-rich “D” well-organized early, with a challenging opener vs. TCU (at Cowboys Stadium) on August 31.


OLE MISS (SUR: 7-6; PSR 6-7)... Expectations have skyrocketed in Oxford, with the Rebels surprising everyone by going 7-6, including a resounding 38-17 victory over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in the first year under Huge Freeze (who then signed a top-five recruiting class). Ole Miss has a chance of winning more games this term, but must survive rough early slate, with four road games by Oct. 5 (trips to Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Auburn!). The revved-up Rebels, however, do benefit from an extended six-game homestand beginning Oct. 12.

Eight starters return to an offense (31.5 ppg, 423.8 ypg) that made big gains in the uptempo spread of clever Huge Freeze. Terrific dual-threat QB Bo Wallace (2,994 YP, 390 YR; 30 combined TDs), who missed spring ball due to January shoulder surgery, is expected to return to full heath in August. But Wallace, who missed the opportunity to develope chemistry with his wide-outs during spring, needs to cut down on his mistakes after throwing 17 interceptions LY. RB Jeff Scott (846 YR), who has lead the team in rushing the last two seasons, will lead a ground attack bolstered by early enrollee frosh Mark Dodson, who turned heads in spring scrimmages. Big-play WR Donte Moncrief (10 TD catches) is the shining star of a seasoned wide-receiver unit, strengthened by prized frosh Laquon Treadwell, who is considered to be the nation’s No. 1 recruit at that position. Four starters are back on the OL, which needs to strengthen its pass protection after yielding 34 sacks LY.

Like the offense, eight starters return to a defense (27.6 ppg LY; 33 ppg in 2011) that made big strides over the previous campaign but struggled to finish games due to youth and lack of depth. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack is hoping by August he’ll have a two-deep, which would allow him to start experimenting with defenses outside of Ole Miss’ base 4-2-5. The aggressive pass rush (38 sacks LY; second in the SEC) could apply even more pressure this year with the addition of 6-5, 270-pound frosh DE Robert Nkemdiche (nation’s No. 1 overall prospect!), who’ll team up with hard-charging DE C.J. Johnson (6.5 sacks). If that happens, it could only help a secondary that had communication issues and gave up too many long passes. Plus, Nick Brassell, who was forced to leave school and play at a junior college in 2012 after being a two-way player at Ole Miss in 2011, is expected to be eligible this fall. Freeze has already identified Brassell as an “NFL corner.” Huge Freeze is a highly-profitable 22-5 vs. the spread the last two seasons, including his successful one-year stint at Arkansas State in 2011.


MISSISSIPPI STATE (SUR: 8-5; PSR 6-8)...The Bulldogs have won 29 games in four years under Dan Mullen, earning both bowl berths each of the last three seasons. And while that’s a big step for a program that was wallowing for a number of years, there is a burning desire for much more in Starkville. MSU just moved into a $25 million football-only facility, and the school is expanding Davis Wade Stadium from 55,000 to 61,000 seats for the 2014 season. But fifth-year mentor Mullen is eager to quickly erase the bad taste of 2012, when the Bulldogs lost five of their last six games following a promising 7-0 start. The opener vs. Oklahoma State (at Houston) is a key clash for MSU, which went 8-0 SU vs. bowl teams last year, but 0-5 vs. squads who participated in the postseason. As a matter of fact, the Bulldogs are seeking another fast start out of the chute, since the month of November is brutal, with road games vs. South Carolina, Texas A&M & Arkansas, and a visit from the two-time defending national champs Alabama.

Fifth-year senior QB Tyler Russell (2,897 YP, 24 TDs. 10 ints.) is the pilot of an attack (29.5 ppg; 6 starters return) desperately seeking rapid maturation at WR, with the departure of the top four pass catchers. Returning jr. WRs Robert Johnson & Jameon Lewis, who emerged as the best options in the spring, must quickly develope rapport with Russell, who does have a proven commodity in versatile sr. TB LaDarius Perkins (1,024 YR, 8 TDs; 19 receptions) demanding every-down attention. Four starters are back on the OL, which must tighten up after allowing Russell to absorb too many hits LY.

After two years as co-defensive coordinator, Geoff Collins now has sole control of a mistake-forcing defense (23.3 ppg; 27 takeaways; 5 starters back), which will be a more attacking, blitzing unit this term. The veteran front seven should be sturdy, with better depth across the DL. DE Denico Autry is reportedly poised to have a monster season, while coaches have wisely moved aggressive Kevin Eulls from DE to DT. Super-soph Benardrick McKinney is the expected leader of the LB corps, which should maintain its high level of play despite the graduation of tackling machine Cam Lawrence. The major concern is in the secondary where the Bulldogs lost three starters, including Jim Thorpe Award winner CB Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, both second-round NFL picks. Fearless sr. SS Nickoe Whitley (88 tackles), however, should provide needed guidance and leadership. The Bulldogs were a dismal 0-5 as an underdog, but 6-2 as chalk LY.


AUBURN (SUR: 3-9; PSR 4-8)...It’s rather remarkable how quickly Auburn has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse. The Tigers went from national champs in 2010 (14-0 that year!), to 8-5 in 2011, and then slipping to 3-9 in 2012 that resulted in the firing of HC Gene Chizik. But the excitement is back on The Plains (a school-record 83,401 attended the spring game!), thanks to hiring of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has returned to Auburn after one year as the head honcho at Arkansas State. Malzahn has one of the toughest jobs around after the Tigers only managed to defeat Louisiana-Monroe (in OT!), New Mexico State and Alabama A&M in LY’s disastrous season. The Tigers—who have signed a string of highly-rated recruiting class in recent years—do have a chance to restore some lost confidence with five home games in the first six weeks, including winnable games vs. Washington State, Arkansas State & Western Carolina.

After finishing a horrid 112th in scoring (18.7 ppg) and passing (156.6 ypg) last year, it’s no surprise Malzahn has made no final decision at QB following the spring. Former Malzahn recruit dual-threat Kiehl Frazier (using that term loosely), who was benched last season for his poor passing (2 TDs, 8 ints.), and Jonathan Wallace (4 TDs, 4 ints.) continue to battle in the fall. And be sure athletic juco Nick Marshall and highly-touted frosh Jeremy Johnson get a chance to showcase what they can do when they arrive in the fall. Powerful, 210-pound juco transfer RB Cameron Artis-Payne (rushed for more than 2,000 yds. at Allan Hancock College in California) teams up with 1,000 yard rusher Tre Mason to give Auburn a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield. WR corps lacks much experience with heavily-recruited Quan Bray & Trovon Reed combining for a meager 23 catches LY. More sturdiness is expected from an OL (four starters back), which gave up whopping 37 sacks LY (109th).

After being equally charitable vs. the run (5.1 ypc; 22 TDs allowed) and the pass year (20 TDs; only 2 ints.) year ago, Tiger Nation welcomes with open arms highly-respected first-year d.c. Ellis Johnson, who’ll implement his trademark 4-2-5 scheme. The new-look defense will feature a hybrid safety/LB position called the “Spur,” which will be manned by Justin Garrett, who generated lots of buzz in the spring. Secondary is well-stocked with all four of the top CBs and its safeties back. But that beleaguered unit must make huge strides, with games against A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray & Bama’s AJ McCarron. With Auburn competing in the rough and tough SEC West, Malzahn will be given a deserved “honeymoon period.” But after going just 2-6 as an underdog LY (6 losses by 17 pts. or more), no big shock to see previously under-performing but still-talented Tigers quickly becoming a “tough out” if the QB battle can be quickly resolved.


ARKANSAS (SUR: 4-8; 2-9)...After the failed John L. Smith experiment in 2012 following the ouster of Bobby Petrino, there will be a drastic personality change under first-year mentor Bret Bielema, who went 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, including three straight trips to the Rose Bowl. The retrofit to a beefier, drive-blocking unit preferred by Bielema took infant steps in the “spring,” and the Razorbacks hope to be in position to play what Bielema calls “big boy football” in the fall. It certainly won’t be easy for a team that lost key personnel--including QB Tyler Wilson and WR Codi Hamilton--from what has been a pass-heavy system. Two areas where the Hogs are counting on immediate improvement are penalties and turnover margin (tied for 118th nationally at a poor minus19 last year).

Only four starters return to an offense (23.5 ppg) seeking a brand new identity behind unproven 6-3 soph QB Brandon Allen (21 of 49 in mop-up duty LY), who showed prowess for throwing the deep ball in the spring. Now there is zero experience behind Allen after fifth-year sr. Brandon Mitchell, who moved from QB to WR last year, decided to transfer following the spring. The backup QB could turn out to be true frosh Austin Allen, Brandon’s younger brother, who led Fayetteville High to the 2012 state title. Bielema, who wants to install a balanced offense despite the emphasis on a physical brand of football, “loves” the toughness of 5-10, 246-pound FB Kiero Small. For first-year o.c. Jim Chaney, depth is an issue at RB behind projected starter soph Jonathan Williams (231 YR on 45 carries LY), who blends power and speed. Incoming five-star recruit RB Alex Collins (Florida product ) might be too valuable to redshirt. The young OL (only 2 starters back) will need time to synchronize, while 6-6 soph Mekale Wilson (21 grabs) & srs. Javontee Herndon & Demetrius Wilson project as the top pass-catchers. Eight starters return to a permissive defense (30. 4 ppg & 409.9 ypg) that toughened-up vs. the run over the previous campaign, yielding 3.6 ypg after 4.4 ypg in 2011. The DL is loaded with veterans, including bookend DEs Chris Smith & Trey Flowers, who combined for 15.5 sacks last season. And while four starters return to the secondary, highly-regarded jucos Tiquention Coleman & Carroll Washington could immediately aid a laboring pass defense that allowed 21 TDs and only 6 picks.

PK Zach Hocker is out to improve on his so-so 11 of 18 performance year ago. A soft early slate might allow the Razorbacks to restore some needed confidence. But U of A will be fighting to avoid the West cellar in this transitional season under Bielema, hindered by four murderous road tests in the final six games (Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss & LSU!).


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